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Christine Carter, PhD

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How to Feel Better When You're Feeling Down

Posted: 05/01/11 12:38 PM ET

"What do you do when you feel sad?" people often ask me. (Some even ask, "Do you ever get sad?")

Yes, of course my kids and I both feel sadness, anger, anxiety -- sometimes downright misery -- just like everyone else. Leading a joyful life does not mean always trying to be happy.

At the same time, I'm not really one for rumination. Meaning: My kids and I feel our feelings -- often deeply -- and then, if the feelings are negative, we try to move on. If the feelings are positive, we try to savor them, to hang on to them.

When people hear that I encourage my kids to move on from unpleasant feelings, many of them worry. "Well, make sure you aren't denying their negative emotions," I've been warned, "or sending the message that bad feelings are bad and should be avoided."

Rest assured: My kids do know that all feelings, good or bad, are okay. They know that I see emotions like sadness, frustration, anxiety and jealousy as windows into their world, and that I love to hear about everything that's happening with them, whether positive or negative. I do not encourage them to buck up, or stuff it down; I do not say things to them like, "You're fine."

But I do encourage my kids to move on from bad feelings, because rumination is bad for you. As psychologist Sonja Lyubomirsky explains in her great book "The How of Happiness":

Overthinking ushers in a host of adverse consequences: It sustains or worsens sadness, fosters negatively biased thinking, impairs a person's ability to solve problems, saps motivation, and interferes with concentration and initiative. Moreover, although people have a strong sense that they are gaining insight into themselves and their problems during their ruminations, this is rarely the case. What they do gain is a distorted, pessimistic perspective on their lives.

Suffice it to say, in my household when something negative happens we practice the skills that we need to be able to let go of a grudge and not ruminate.

I've written before about teaching kids how to forgive. Today I'd like to expand a little on how I help my kids feel better after they've been feeling badly.

1) Accept the negative feelings.

The key to this is not to deny what we are feeling, but rather to lean into our feelings, even if they are painful. Take a moment to be mindful and narrate: "I'm feeling anxious right now," or, "This situation is making me tense." Hang in there with unpleasant feelings at least long enough to acknowledge them.

This is the gist of emotion coaching kids: We help them label what they are feeling, and we validate that their feelings are okay. With younger kids, the challenge is helping them understand that while bad feelings are always all right, bad behavior never is. Be crystal clear about this. For example, it is totally okay that your child is feeling jealous and hateful toward her sister. At the same time, it is never okay to hit her.

2) Problem solve.

What did you learn from that embarrassing situation? What can you do to improve a difficult situation tomorrow? Who else can help? Who do you need to forgive before you'll feel better? Put a plan into place.

3) Let go. Move on. Try to feel better.

This means that we make a genuine effort to cultivate happiness, gratitude, hope or any other positive emotion; researchers call this "deep acting."

Faking a smile or other pleasantries to cover our negative emotions (what researchers call "surface acting") without actually trying to change our underlying negative emotions will often make us feel worse rather than better. But when we genuinely try to feel more positive -- when we do try to change our underlying feelings -- we usually end up feeling fewer negative emotions and more positive emotions.

Most often, moving on means distracting ourselves or our children from the situation. We need to leave the scene of the crime, so to speak. In my next post, I'm going to give you a nice long list of techniques that my kids and I use to keep ourselves from overthinking difficult situations, and to move on when we want to feel better.

What negative situations do you find yourself overthinking? Do you notice your children ruminating about certain situations?

© 2011 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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